Monday, February 22, 2010

Blast from the scandal's past

“(Bill Murray) felt as if he was doing the work of six people … constantly being hounded by the MHAs. Even on Christmas day he’d get phone calls, calling him at home, wanting to process a claim.”
— Averill Baker, July 9, 2006, The Independent

Bill Murray, the former bureaucrat at the centre of the House of Assembly spending scandal, is scheduled to be sentenced this afternoon (Monday, Feb. 22nd) at the Supreme Court in St. John’s for his crimes.

He pleaded guilty on Jan. 26th to fraud over $5000 and to three counts of accepting awards from politicians and a St. John's businessman. Other related charges were withdrawn.

After his guilty plea, Murray apologized for his crimes, and to the people he hurt, and took full responsibility for his actions.

Back in July 2006, however, his then-lawyer Averill Baker proclaimed her client’s innocence.

Headline: Fall guy
Deck: Lawyer for suspended civil servant
says her client innocent; focus should be shifted to politicians

By RYAN CLEARY
Sunday, July 09, 2006

The lawyer for the civil servant at the centre of a scandal that continues to shake the province’s political landscape says her client is innocent of the allegations against him and only did what politicians directed him to do.

Averill Baker says her client, Bill Murray, the suspended director of financial operations for the House of Assembly, points the finger of blame at the MHAs on the Internal Economy Commission who, in Baker’s opinion, “had been dictating to him what to do.”

Baker tells The Independent the one time Murray tried to dispute an expense claim he was shot down. “I simply don’t understand about my client being ganged up on or blamed for this in that the one time he did try to dispute a claim he was told, ‘Look, who are you to ask me about this? Who are you to ask me what this is for?’”

Baker alleges auditor general John Noseworthy and an assistant visited Murray on June 22, while he was a patient at the Waterford Hospital — a meeting she describes as inappropriate considering her client was in a weakened mental state.

She argues information gathered by Noseworthy at that meeting — information, she alleges, the auditor general used to help build his case — shouldn’t be admissible in court because Murray, at that point, didn’t have a lawyer.

Baker is highly critical of the auditor general’s overall investigation, accusing him of stepping “way out of line” by assuming the role of the police.

“The statements that were taken under the circumstances will most certainly not be admissible because they were very bad circumstances to be taking statements from people,” Baker says.

“He (Murray) was given no caution whatsoever and yet the auditor general is turning around and using these statements as part of his report, at least to support his accusations that he’s waving publicly left, right and centre.”

Murray’s “very small room” in the psychiatric hospital was a busy place that particular June day, Baker says, with Noseworthy’s visit followed “10 minutes later” by another meeting when MHA Harvey Hodder, speaker of the House of Assembly, and John Noel, clerk of the House, showed up.

“As the auditor general well knows, all of the money has to be approved, all of the claims have to be approved by the commission itself. Harvey Hodder is head of that commission, so I just found it odd that, you know, that Hodder was quick to blame someone given that all of these expenses are really his responsibility and the others on the commission,” Baker says.

“I don’t see my client as someone who’s done anything wrong. Again, I’m technically not allowed to say that. I’ve learned this year that we’re not allowed to tell the public that our clients are innocent, but I honestly don’t understand why Mr. Murray is, why anyone is pointing a finger at him. Why isn’t Noseworthy lining up people on the commission and asking them, putting them under the gun and asking them how could you have done this?”

Noseworthy has refused further comment on the scandal while the Constabulary is investigating. Hodder refused comment because of the ongoing police investigation.

Murray, who has since been transferred to the Health Sciences’ psychiatric ward, where he remains, has been off work on sick leave since June 1. He was later suspended from his position by the provincial government and barred from Confederation Building.

Four politicians have been implicated by Noseworthy in a review of the legislature’s finances, alleging they overspent their constituency allowances by more than $1 million.

Ed Byrne has resigned his cabinet post, while MHAs Wally Andersen (Liberal, Torngat Mountains) and NDP member Randy Collins (Labrador West) have hired lawyers. Former Liberal MHA Jim Walsh (Conception Bay East-Bell Island) has also been implicated.

According to Noseworthy, most of the money can be linked directly to the bank accounts of the politicians.

Noseworthy has also said the alleged misspending of $1 million in government money couldn’t have happened without “collusion” within the legislature.

Baker says she has a “huge problem” with Noseworthy’s investigation of Murray, who, as an employee of the House, has no protection in the form of a union.

“The auditor general is not supposed to be acting like the police,” Baker says. “He’s looking into possible criminal behaviour and he has no problem reporting it to the CBC, calling press conferences and stating how sure he is that something, that there was collusion … going well beyond what the auditor general’s role is.

“Going way beyond suggesting that he did something wrong, stating to the press every morning that he truly believed something was wrong,” she adds.

“So when you’re the auditor general and you’re going well beyond doing your normal audit and you’re now stepping into the role of the police, you ought not to go down to somebody’s hospital room, especially if they’re in a ward for a weak mental state.”

Baker says the auditor general questioned Murray when the two met, “and then he (Noseworthy) suggested that he should be telling others about this, like Mr. Hodder. And then within 10 minutes Mr. Hodder showed up with John Noel.”

Unique Keepsakes, a company owned by Murray and/or his wife is also said to have received $170,000 in “inappropriate payments” between April 2001 and December 2005.

As for that particular allegation, Baker says Murray immediately disclosed his conflict “before any claims were put through, immediately disclosed it and we can prove that and we will.

“I really don’t think that Mr. Murray, and again, I shouldn’t be saying this, but I don’t see there’s any evidence that he’s done anything wrong. I don’t see it.”

Baker says Murray is “hanging in there.” She says her client was under tremendous stress while on the job as financial director. She says Murray had requested support staff to help him in his position, but was turned down.

“He told me the other day he felt as if he was doing the work of six people and he and his wife could never get a holiday, they were constantly being hounded by the MHAs. Even on Christmas day he’d get phone calls, calling him at home, wanting to process a claim.”

Baker says the money in question never went to Murray.

“This is what people don’t understand. This is not money that went to Mr. Murray. So I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence. If the claims were improper there isn’t a shred of evidence that any more went to him.”

Premier Danny Williams rejected calls this week to hold a public inquiry into the scandal. Justice Derek Green has been asked to review political spending and recommend a new, fool-proof system.

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